By ANN ROBERTSON
Teachers across the nation have their eyes on California State University (CSU) as the 20,000 faculty members, spread over 22 campuses, brace themselves for the fight of their careers.
On March 28, the members of the California Faculty Association voted to authorize a strike if such action should become necessary.
At stake in this historic struggle and the reason why the faculty has thrown down the gauntlet is the preservation of quality education for the over 300,000 students who are enrolled in CSU.
In line with a national trend, the California Board of Trustees (primarily corporate leaders appointed by various governors) have gradually degraded the faculty’s working conditions, making it increasingly difficult for them to serve their students.
In this last round of contract negotiations, the faculty felt compelled to reject a contract offer and are now calling for job actions-including the possibility of a strike. The special bone of contention was a so-called “merit” pay program introduced by the chancellor as spokesperson for the trustees.
Although it was packaged to sound like a program where those who work harder are paid more, in reality the “merit” pay program operates in just the reverse.
Those who are in political favor with the administration are generously rewarded while faculty who quietly work long and hard for their students but refuse to play the political game (that benefits corporate America) are simply overlooked.
The proposed “merit” pay program represented an added insult to injury since faculty salaries in the recent past have not kept up with the rate of inflation and now stand over 11 percent behind the salaries of faculty at comparable institutions, although CSU faculty have a heavier teaching load and their cost of living is higher.
The other major point of contention in the recent contract offer rejected by the faculty was its failure to redress the deplorable working conditions of the part-time faculty, who now constitute 50 percent of the entire faculty.
These part-timers are severely underpaid, have no job security, and are usually denied health care and other benefits.
Thus far in the struggle, the faculty has been severely handicapped by top union officials, who have talked as if they opposed “merit” pay but took every opportunity to promote it behind the backs of the membership.
But at the union’s recent convention, rank-and-file members, many of whom have been outraged by these top officials, conducted a clean sweep, removed them from office, and replaced them with candidates who have consistently opposed “merit” pay in both word and deed.
In conjunction with the elections, the rank-and-file delegates voted to initiate a variety of job actions, including work stoppages, which will be pursued with different degrees of aggression on the various campuses, depending on the level of preparedness of the faculty on each campus.
It will be tempting for the faculty to resort to quick and easy power plays, such as the withholding of student grades, in order to pressure the trustees into concessions. But such ploys could easily backfire by alienating the faculty’s most powerful ally, the students.
Rather than resorting to “get-rich-quick” schemes, the faculty must educate both other faculty members and their own students that the fight for quality education is equally imperative for faculty and students alike.
Then, with the help of the union movement, faculty and students must reach out to the working public-which has repeatedly indicated strong support for quality, public education. They must organize mass rallies, teach-ins, and work stoppages, drawing in as many of these supporters as possible.
If victorious, CSU students and faculty could serve as a powerful inspiration to teachers and students across the nation who are facing similar grim attacks on their working and learning conditions.